Why I hate the word mentor: tips for finding career advisors

mm Russ Finkelstein

I hate the word “mentor.”

(Ok, not for “young” people, but in the traditional business context)

I’m only using it now because it is so prevalent in what many people think is the key to super-charging their professional success. In the working world, it is shorthand for someone who provides you with professional wisdom and guidance.

Unfortunately, the way we use the term in society also includes quite a bit of baggage that both parties carry with them. Society still tends to see a mentor as someone of advanced years and professional success who holds the collective wisdom about everything we could want to know. To society, a mentor is someone we gaze up at with total respect and adoration.

And so, in turn, most individuals also only conceive of mentors as (1) of advanced years/experience who thus (2) hold the collective wisdom about their profession and (3) are someone to be gazed up at with total respect and adoration.

Truth is, I have never had a professional mentor that fit the above definition. However, as I have gotten…hmmmm…more accomplished (okay, older), people often look to me to help them in that capacity, and I serve in a version of it.

As we get to know each other better, I share that while I have opinions based on lots of training and experience I am only one data point. They still need to do the work to figure out what others will say and determine what is true. In large part my insight is based on having lots of conversations with a spectrum of people. Secondly, and more pertinent to this post, is that the active pursuit of a “mentor” – an all-knowing superhuman – is an unrealistic one. Because while most people have a depth of knowledge about some things, no one will know everything you need to know professionally (and if they tell you they do, you should run away quickly).

A few things to consider as you go further down the path of finding key advisors:

  1. Asking someone to be a mentor when you first meet is a bit like asking someone to marry after the first date. Slow. It. Down.
    Instead of fixating on the term mentor think about what it represents. Chiefly, someone you respect who will reliably make time to converse with you and where the communication flows. Have initial conversations to see who would be a good fit. Follow-up with those who fit the above parameters and schedule a next call. The m-word need not come up, and before you know it you will have one.
  2. What happens when you disagree? You aren’t a vessel to be filled. Rather, you have opinions based on experience too. How does s/he respond when you push back on what they say? This isn’t about being argumentative, but to realize dialogue as you will need clarification at times.
  3. Related to the prior piece of advice, some who gladly take on the role of mentor do so without regard for your well-being. Rather, they like the idea of a relationship where someone sits at their feet and indulges in hero worship. You ultimately won’t do well in a situation like that.
  4. Think of these advisors as representing different spheres of knowledge and expertise. It could be about a field (i.e. corporate lawyer) or subject expertise (i.e. social media). For those who like sports or movies, and I hope that this covers most people, consider advisors like a fantasy casting of your favorite team or film. What do you need around you to succeed? Find it.

Finally, a note on self-awareness as your seek your support system: Professional lives and positions are fluid. You are always better served if you get to know the person supporting you. What are their challenges? How can you offer support? The more you create an equal relationship the better.

Ok, get out there and make me proud.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >